Preserving and protecting the desert tortoise
Once common throughout the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, the desert tortoise population has rapidly decreased over the past century due to vandalism, raven predation, disease, collections for pets (now illegal), and habitat degradation. Jillian Estrada is working to reverse this trend as manager of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, a small nonprofit that works to acquire, manage, and protect desert tortoise habitat in the Western Mojave and Southern Sonoran Deserts. “The desert tortoise has inhabited this area for millions of years,” Estrada said. “It has specially adapted to survive here.” The committee was instrumental in establishing the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area (DTRNA), nearly 40 square miles of prime habitat that historically supported one of the highest tortoise population densities known. The committee is working with the Bureau of Land Management to develop a long-term plan for the restoration of critical habitat for the desert tortoise on the 49,000-acre Pilot Knob cattle grazing allotment in San Bernardino County, with the goal of permanently retiring the grazing permit there. “I am using the skills I have learned at SEAS as well as learning many new skills to run a nonprofit, which allows me to directly affect the lives of numerous wild desert tortoises, kit fox, burrowing owls, and many other species inhabiting the desert,” Estrada said. In addition to land acquisition and stewardship, the committee is active in conservation education and in facilitating research that helps protect tortoise preserve lands. It recently launched the Mojave Desert Discovery Centers project, an ambitious desert-wide public education project. Kiosks located at visitor centers provide educational programs to people traveling through the desert. Focused on the desert tortoise, presentations also feature desert ecosystems and the impacts of human activities on fragile environmental systems.